Food for the Soul
“…how can we live so that our participation is for the greatest good and the greatest healing for all beings?”
with John Robbins
As a vegetarian, I thought I had a pretty good knowledge of the inside dirt On animal husbandry. But it is one thing to know, it is quite another to feel. The fact that I can ‘t eat meat didn’t protect me from the onslaught of shame and sadness that crashed through my head when I read Diet for a New America. I found it hard to believe that we had gone so far. I cried harder than I had in years.
As John Robbins points out, you don ‘t have to be an animal activist, or even particularly love animals, To be appalled, horrified, and outraged at what is being done in factory farms all over the country, all day, every day. It is so extreme. The book reads like sci-fi horror; a prophetic warning of the ripening of humanity ‘s faceless brutality. But the fact is, it been going on for years.
John Robbins surfaced from the Baskin Robbins ice cream family gene pool like some Strange new mutation–the thirty-second flavor who was destined to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the National Dairy Council. In his two books, the international best-seller Diet for a New Americaand May All Be Fed, he explains with straightforward clarity the link between our food habits and the health of our planet, our bodies, and our souls.
His manner is filled with the contagious buoyancy of a person who is being true to his conscience. He speaks with an impassioned sincerity–never patronizing, never self-righteous. We interviewed John at his home in Felton, California on June 9, 1994. In his mid-forties he still looks like a schoolboy, his wide blue eyes, elfin face, and Disney smile radiate with a childlike innocence. This is the man at the top of the Meat and Dairy Board’s most-wanted list, you wonder? The man they consider so dangerous that they have meetings on ways to discredit him?
He is the founder of the nonprofit organization EarthSave, which concentrates on educating the public about health, nutrition, and sustainable energy consumption. He has spoken to a variety of audiences, including Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Sierra Club, the Humane Society of the United States, UNICEF and the United Nations Environmental Program, where he received a standing ovation. Do you know that colon cancer is directly linked to meat consumption? Do you know that you save more water by not eating one pound of beef than you would from not showering for a whole year? Do you know the extent of the suffering involved in factory farming? Once you know, you can never act without that knowledge again. Here is the information, says John Robbins. Now it ‘s up to you. Bon appetite!
David: How did growing up in the `heart of the American food machine,’ influence your motivation to research and write Diet for a New America?
John: There was a tremendous investment, in my family, to deny any link between diet and health; particularly between ice cream and health. It wasn’t just ignorance about the subject, it was a real commitment to denial.(laughter) I understood it, given the livelihood involved, but I could feel the pressure of that denial like a lid on top of me. As I was growing up and reaching out beyond the assumptions, values and world-view of my parents, I encountered a lot of information that was taboo to them.
Rebecca: How old were you when you began questioning those taboos?
John: Very young. I don’t know how to account for it, but the fact of the matter is that I seemed to be destined to do this. From my earliest childhood I was living two lives; I was being groomed by my father to succeed him; being trained in the factory, in merchandising and franchising and all the other aspects of the business, and then my inner life was involved in questioning and challenging everything I was being taught.
I couldn’t talk to my father about this, or my mother, or my sisters, or my aunts and uncles.(laughter) It was two separate worlds. In one world ice cream made people happy, and in another world, ice cream was high in saturated fat and cholesterol and contributed to diabetes and heart disease.
Rebecca: But that’s not something that you could have known as a very small child.
John: No, not the details of it. It was more of a feeling.
Rebecca: You never enjoyed ice cream?
John: I loved ice cream! Did I say that for a moment? Are you kidding me?! (laughter) When people find out that I don’t eat ice cream anymore, they get this pained look on their face as if I’m deprived, and I say, “please don’t feel sorry for me, I’ve eaten enough ice cream for ten lifetimes!”
Rebecca: So the style of your inspiration was more of an unraveling process rather than a revelatory flash?
John: There were moments that catalyzed me or where I became aware that I had progressed to a certain point, but I can’t pin the development of my consciousness on those moments. For example, in 1960 I was living and going to school in Berkeley. I had been working with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement had become very important to me. I was this privileged upper-class white kid and sometimes I wondered what business I had being involved in this, but then I felt that I had a lot of business because it was such a profound thing that was happening to everyone.
To put this in context, I have to back up a little. When I was in high school and working closely with my dad, I knew only the world of wealthy people and the country club scene, but I did not feel privileged by that. I felt restricted and limited by the fact that I only felt comfortable with what I was familiar with. I would look around at everybody else, and I felt completely disconnected.
And I noticed that at Baskin Robbins, most of the store owners were white and most of the customers were white and that it was basically an upper-class trip – it was a luxury ice cream. And then when I was a senior at high school I was offered scholarships to Harvard, Stanford and Yale because I had been very successful on the debate team. But I chose not to go to those schools because it would have been more of the same – the privileged few.
So I chose to go to the University of California at Berkeley which is a public school and was then fairly inexpensive. I thought, here would be an opportunity to meet people outside the very narrow socio-economic group that I had been in. I had a very powerful desire to understand more kinds of people.
So, in 1965, I left Los Angeles and went to Berkeley. I immediately became involved in the free-speech movement, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. It was an incredible time to be alive. Openings of all kinds were happening. I took the civil rights movement very personally, and when Martin Luther King was killed in 1968 I felt as if a bullet had gone through my heart too. Any thoughts of business as usual felt just ludicrous and empty.
I had seen in my own family a high level of material success attained – and I had seen its limitations. Within the circle of my family’s friends were some of the richest people in the world, who also happened to be some of the most neurotic people in the world.
David: What about your sisters? Were you the only rebel in the bunch?
John: Yeah. My two sisters share a great deal of assumptions and perspectives with my parents.
Rebecca: How do they feel about what you’re doing now?
John: It’s hard for them. They don’t feel comfortable with it – except my father. When I left the business, he was very hurt and that caused a lot of distance between us. He respected me and he knew that I was sincere, but he felt that I was crazy. Here I was with long hair walking away from an opportunity to be extremely wealthy in order to do – what? He couldn’t see it, and I couldn’t explain it either, in terms that made sense to him.
My uncle, Bert Baskin died of a heart attack in the late `60’s. I said to my dad, “do you think there could be any connection between the amount of ice cream that Uncle Bert would eat and his heart attack?” He said, “absolutely not, his ticker just got tired.”
Then five years ago my dad’s health was very precarious. His cholesterol was almost 300. He had very high blood pressure for which he had to take ten – what he called horse pills – every day, which had serious side-effects which he hated. His diabetes was out of control and he was in danger of going blind or ending up on a kidney dialysis machine or lose a foot to gangrene.
He went to see a physician who told him that the prognosis was pretty grim and that all they could do now was shuffle his medications and make his last years more comfortable. Then the physician said, “but if you are